Politics & Policy

The Odds


I was watching the latest antiwar rally on CSPAN last weekend, which I do in lieu of the occasional Three Stooges marathon, and towards the end, the crowd broke into a familiar chant:

The people, united, can never be defeated!

The people, united, can never be defeated!

The people, united, can never be defeated!

As usual, I was struck by the defiance in their voices, and by the confidence of their tone . . . so much so that I began to wonder: Hey, where can I get a piece of that action?

So Monday morning I phoned my bookie, Johnny L, and I asked him if he would take a bet on whether the people united could ever be defeated. He paused for a moment, rolling the proposition around in his mind, until at last he inquired, “You want to bet for or against the people?”

“Well, that depends on the odds–”

“Now you’re talking my language,” he said. “The first thing you’ve got to ask is who exactly you’re talking about. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that people who call themselves ‘the people united’ are never anything close to a united majority of the people. If they were, they’d already be the government. Capice?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It sure seemed like a lot of people, thousands of them.”

“You want to see something like ‘the people united,’ tune in for opening day of the baseball season. Oh, and while you’re at it, check out the expressions in the crowd during the Star-Spangled Banner.”

“All right,” I said, “I get your point. So let’s say, in this case, ‘the people united’ are a relatively small but determined coalition of fist-pumping Marxist wannabes, Oedipal-driven anarchists, knee-jerk performance artists, professional victims, and gray-haired refugees from the 1960s whose great revolutionary gesture is the refusal to pay back their student loans.”

“Got any historically oppressed minorities in that coalition?”

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

“Then you can tap into collective guilt,” Johnnie L replied. “I mean, who’s going to take a bunch of middle-class yahoos seriously unless they can lasso in a few Dupes of Color?”

“I saw lots of minorities on the stage. Much fewer in the crowd though.”

“All right, so you’ve got at least a token minority presence,” he said. “Now, who are ‘the people united’ going up against? I mean, what kind of a government are we talking about?”

“Is that relevant?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he replied. “Say ‘the people united’ are taking on a totalitarian regime. I wouldn’t even make book on it. They’ve got no chance. They’d have death squads at their doors the moment the first fliers went up. Unless of course you’re talking about a banana republic. In that case, it’s always even money. Hell, even a weasel like Castro can claw his way to power in a banana republic–with a little help from the New York Times.”

“What about a constitutional monarchy?”

“You got a free press?” he asked.


Johnny L pondered the question for a moment. “Nah, still wouldn’t make book on it. Too many institutional safeguards, too much inertia. Plus, they’d have to be semi-literate. Chanting isn’t going to do the trick. That, right there, eliminates most of ‘the people united.’”

“All right,” I said. “But what about a representative democracy? After all, last week’s march was in Washington, D.C., not London.”

“Does the government guarantee civil liberties?”


“How dumbed-down is the rest of the population?”

“Pretty dumbed-down,” I said.

“Dumbed-down enough to believe, let’s say, that bin Laden and his ilk are ultimately live and let live kind of guys, or that totalitarian Islam and pan-Arabism are discrete phenomena?”


“Dumb-down enough to snicker at ‘Just say no!’ but trot out “Give peace a chance!’ as a workable foreign policy?”

“I’m afraid so,” I said.

“Celebrities on board?”

“The majority of them,” I said.

“Now let me see if I’ve handicapped this right: ‘The people united,’ with major celebrity support and a sympathetic press, are going up against a stable representative democracy with a dumbed-down general population. So far, so good?”


“Are the people home or away?”

“I don’t understand the difference.”

“Home would be hanging around their own neighborhoods, engaging in civil disobedience. Away would be massing at a national monument, then bum-rushing the seat of government.”

“Let’s say they’re home.”

“Never happen, my friend,” he said. “No representative democratic government is going to come after a bunch of whiny protesters just for blocking traffic. Why bother? Sure, the local cops might haul their butts into jail for a night. But the long term strategy is always to give them enough rope to hang themselves–you know, let them make public nuisances of themselves until they alienate their neighbors, then watch the movement peter out.”

“In that case, let’s say they’re away.”

“I’d make ’em a hundred-to-one dogs in the summer, a thousand-to-one in the winter.”

“Why does the time of year matter?”

“Winter is cold and flu season. Parents don’t let the kiddies out. You need the kiddies–the preferred term is ‘the youth’–on the front lines of these movements. Grown ups don’t have the time to waste. They’re too busy getting on with their lives.”

“So,” I said, ‘the people united’ would be no better than a hundred-to-one, or a thousand-to-one underdogs, even if their opponent was a representative democracy?”

“That’s right,” Johnny L said. “On the other hand, if you put them up against the Cubs . . .”


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